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This Day in Georgia History

March 13, 1865

Bill Authorized Recruitment of Black Soldiers

At the Confederate Capitol in Richmond, Va., the Senate approved by a single vote a bill authorizing the recruitment of black soldiers into the Confederate army [click here to view act]. The House had already approved the bill, which was then sent to Pres. Jefferson Davis, who signed it immediately. In November 1864, Jefferson Davis addressed the Confederate Congress calling for “the enrollment of 40,000 negroes to be employeed as pioneer and engineer laborers.” Davis urged that these slaves be purchased from their owners and then freed at the end of their service. Davis’ call prompted considerable controversy, but following Confederate losses at Franklin, Nashville, and Savannah in late 1864, the fall of Fort Fisher in January 1865, the failure of the Hampton Roads peace conference on Feb. 3, 1865, and the continuing desertions of southern soldiers, opinions about arming slaves began to change for some. Several Confederate generals–including Robert E. Lee–called for using slaves to fill the ranks of decimated Confederate armies, with Lee recommending that any slaves who agreed to fight for the South should be freed when the war was over (though the legislation that would pass on March 13, 1865, made no provision for freeing any blacks who joined as soldiers).In Georgia, with a few exceptions, there had been no serious thought of arming slaves until Sherman’s march through the state. However, by late 1864 and early 1865, an earnest debate was underway. Newspaper editorials about black soldiers in the Confederate ranks were split on the issue, while Gov. Joseph E. Brown was adamantly opposed. Some Georgians who had earlier opposed the plan were changing their minds, convinced that southern independence could only be secured by arming slaves and providing for their emancipation after the war. [For an examination of attitudes in Georgia on allowing slaves to serve in combat, see Philip D. Dillard, “The Confederate Debate Over Arming Slaves: Views from Macon and Augusta Newspapers,” The Georgia Historical Quarterly, Vol. LXXIX, No. , Spring 1995).Throughout the South, several thousand blacks reportedly enlisted following passage of the March 13 act, but by now it was too late for the South. Just four weeks later, Lee surrender to Gen. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia.